To begin with, there are two observations to be made. First, the reader should be warned that this review of Gabriel Piterberg’s The Returns of Zionism, a work by a convinced anti-Zionist, has been written by a Zionist who is no less sure of himself.footnote1 I have done my best to read Piterberg’s book with objectivity and an open mind, but if this review had been written by one of the anti-Zionist writers quoted at length by Piterberg, it would clearly have been very different. Secondly, I should make clear that whatever reservations and criticisms I may have, Piterberg’s book is one of the most interesting works on Zionism by a militant anti-Zionist that I have read for a long time.
The aim of The Returns of Zionism is clear, and Piterberg does not hide it: the total de-legitimization of the Jewish nation-state founded in Palestine. A quarter of a century ago, this idea had a certain novelty; it aroused curiosity, especially as Zionist historiography was characterized by conformism, not to say an antiquated and dusty quality; but since then the anti-Zionists have established their own conformism and become stuck in its mire. At the same time, Israeli historiography has liberated itself from many of its traditional weaknesses, very comparable to those of the French or German historiographies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, the extreme politicization of anti-Zionist discourse and its considerable exposure in the media have not benefited research. One could say that, like post-modernism, anti-Zionism has aged badly. But if works whose aim is the de-legitimization of the Jewish national movement and the State of Israel are legion, Piterberg’s is distinguished by its high intellectual standard and the general culture of the author. This does not mean that he succeeds in avoiding the usual faults of the genre; but if he does not discover America, his book has sufficient merit to deserve an in-depth critical reading.
With great honesty, the author announces his intentions from the start, and the first sentence of the work gives the flavour of the whole:
This book is the product of a realization. I grew up in an affluent part of Israel which is strewn with labour Zionist cooperative settlements. The region is called Emeq Hefer. What I came to realize was that underneath Emeq Hefer lay—erased and buried—Wadi Hawarith; and that my joyful and privileged childhood and young adulthood in Emeq Hefer were inextricably intertwined with the destruction of Wadi Hawarith and the removal of its previous inhabitants.
This way of proceeding is not unusual among Israelis, both those who live in the country and those who have decided to leave. There are innumerable young and not-so-young Israelis who have found at a certain point in their lives that the Jewish national rebirth has demanded an exorbitant price from the Arabs. A small number have taken the path adopted by Piterberg: for them, the injustice towards the Palestinians, who have been partly expelled from their country, can never be expiated, except perhaps if the Jews of Israel accepted the extinction of Zionism, gave back the lands confiscated after the War of Independence, reconstructed the 350–400 Arab villages destroyed in the war and agreed to become a minority in an Arab-Palestinian state. According to Piterberg, they are cosmopolitan humanists, worthy descendants of Hannah Arendt, whereas all the Zionists, whether left-wing or right-wing, by definition belong to the colonialist camp. True to his ideas, Piterberg has waged an all-out intellectual war against Zionism, and battles are fought on every page of the work under review.
The thesis of this work is unambiguously stated: Zionism is bad in its nature and principles and not only in its results. Zionism is a colonialism, not a simple radical nationalism: even in its left-wing version, it is a colonialist nationalism. Whites from Europe came to subjugate an indigenous people and, having reduced it to servitude, they finished off the task by ‘ethnic cleansing’. The term is, of course—as in the work of Ilan Pappé whose influence on Piterberg was determinant—an evocation of Radovan Karadžic´’s Bosnia. As in a Greek tragedy, the outcome of the drama is known in advance. Piterberg sees ‘ethnic cleansing’ as integral to Zionism—to the logic of its programme—not, as most Zionists would see it, as a by-product of the long and difficult 1947–49 war launched by the Arab States against the founding of the Jewish State. This war plays only a minor role for Piterberg; but one is led to understand that the same thing would have happened in any case. A reader whose only source of information was The Returns of Zionism would never guess that the Jewish community in Palestine lost one per cent of its population in the war. By way of comparison, the Second World War cost the United States about 0.32 per cent of its population, the United Kingdom lost 0.95 per cent, and France (including the Jews deported to the east) 1.35 per cent. The fact that most of the indefensible actions, assassinations and expulsions which sowed panic among the Arab population were local initiatives—as in the most infamous case, Deir Yassin, perpetrated by militants of the radical right-wing fringe, near Jerusalem—does not interest Piterberg. In the same way, he attaches no importance to the fact that there was never a policy of organized expulsion. Most Arabs, especially in the north of the country, did not move, and today Israeli Arabs constitute 20 per cent of the population.
Nor does Piterberg show any awareness of the fact that, if the Palestinians feared the Jews, the Jews feared the Arab armies that invaded Palestine on 15 May 1948. Today it is difficult to imagine that the Syrian army that came down from the Golan Heights was stopped only at the last barbed-wire entanglements of Kibbutz Degania in the Jordan Valley, or that the Arab Liberation Army was defeated at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, on the main road between Haifa and Jenin. The road to Jerusalem was cut. The Jordanian Arab Legion conquered the Jewish Quarter of the city, destroyed it and expelled its inhabitants. The Arab Legion also won the battle of Gush Etzion to the south of Jerusalem, and laid waste to its Jewish settlements. The Egyptian army suffered heavy losses, but succeeded in penetrating the Israeli lines of defence as far as today’s town of Ashdod, some 35 kilometres from Tel Aviv. This war, in which the fate of the two communities in Palestine, the Jewish and Arab, was played out, resulted in endless brutalities and disasters. But for Piterberg this does not explain anything: according to him, Zionist ideology was from its inception a murderous colonial idea; the project of ‘ethnic cleansing’ was the inevitable result.